Leaders in a California school district have made the decision to ban from the classroom three classic American novels — Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” — after hearing just a handful of complaints.
Burbank Unified School District administrators informed teachers of the censorship during a Sept. 9 virtual meeting, Newsweek reported. Other banned books include Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
The decision, which marks the first change to the BUSD reading list in 30 years, according to the Los Angeles Times, came after four parents complained about the books in question.
Carmenita Helligar said her daughter Destiny was harassed by a white student who used racial smears, including the N-word, because he learned it while reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” Helligar claimed another boy told her daughter: “My family used to own your family and now I want a dollar from each of you for the week.”
The incident, Helligar said, left Destiny feeling “traumatized.” She went on to describe the classic novels as “problematic.”
Another parent, Nadra Ostrom, said, “There’s no counter-narrative to this black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them.” The books in question, she continued, assume “racism is something in the past.”
The temporary ban, put in place while school officials determine whether to permanently remove the books from the BUSD reading list, hasn’t gone over well with everyone, though.
Sungjoo Yoon, a 15-year-old sophomore at Burbank High School, has started a Change.org petition in opposition of ban on what he described as “classic, anti-racist literature.”
“In a time where racism has become more transparent than ever,” he wrote in part, “we need to continue to educate students as to the roots of it; to create anti-racist students. These literatures, of which have been declared ‘Books that Shaped America’ by the Library of Congress, won Newbury Medals, and are some of the most influential pieces, cannot disappear.”
The student asked those who “stand against censorship” and “fight for virtue over comfort” to sign his petition. As of the publishing of this article, more than 2,600 people had signed Yoon’s appeal.
Additionally, the National Coalition Against Censorship is urging BUSD leaders to reverse course. According to the Times, the NCAC told administrators with the BUSD: “We believe that the books … have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum.”
PEN America (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) created its own petition, in which its leaders stated they “object to the news that several books dealing with the subject of race in America … have been temporarily banned within Burbank public school classes.”
The group argued a blanket ban does more harm than good:
Each of the books in question deal with difficult subject matter from our country’s complicated and painful history, including systemic racism. In a year when we have seen a national movement against systemic racial injustice, it is crucial to bring these subjects into the classroom with care and sensitivity, which teachers are well-equipped to do. Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.
We understand that this ban may have been proposed with good intentions. But banning books is not the answer. Informed guidance from trained educators would allow students to learn about their world and themselves from these book’s challenging stories and ideas in a supported space.
PEN America’s petition went on to state banning books from the classroom “undermines the expertise of the district’s educators, robs students of an important educational opportunity, and sets a troubling precedent that undermines the ability of educators, students, and families to make decisions for themselves.”
“We hope that Burbank officials will recognize that book banning is a tactic that ultimately does a great disservice to our educators, our communities, and most importantly to our children,” it concluded.
During a Board of Education meeting on Nov. 5, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in Burbank announced the formation of a subcommittee to review the books temporarily banned by BUSD administrators.
A few Burbank students reportedly called into the meeting during the public comments segment of the assembly to tell board members they oppose the book ban, advocating the classic titles be returned to school curriculums.
BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill thanked the students for sharing their opinions and said the subcommittee would take their comments under consideration. It’s worth noting, however, the review committee is made up of the parents who filed complaints against the books as well as BUSD English teachers and instructional staff members.
Hill said the committee is “reviewing the complaint for our curriculum and reviewing our core novels and our curriculum.”
“This is not about banning books,” he claimed. “This is not about taking away academic freedom.”
BUSD Library Coordinator Lisa Dyson expressed anger at news reports from outlets like the Times and Newsweek, claiming the removal of books from the curriculum is not akin to banning books.
“These books are on pause while we listen and learn from our [black, indigenous and people of color] students, parents, and teachers who have experienced these classroom books for over 30 years now and have come to our district sharing their experiences and their concerns,” she claimed. “So these books are on pause while we listen and learn and read what is currently out there also written by award-winning BIPOC without the trope of the white savior stories or books that are considered ‘classics’ because white gatekeepers at one time decided what would be considered classic.”
Dyson went on to call reports about the BUSD decision “misinformation” because the books remain on the shelves in school libraries.
“This is a conversation schools and libraries are having all across our country right now … and it’s long past due,” she said. “This is not censorship. It’s about equity representation of our student populations. It’s 2020. There are now so many options out there that can enhance our literature curriculum. The work is being done.”